August 3, 2017 2:24 pm
Updated: August 3, 2017 2:27 pm

Canadians still wildly overestimating the level of violent crime

Canadians continue to overestimate the level of violent crime going on around them.

(AP Photo/File)

Canadians are still wildly overestimating the amount of violent crime taking place across the country, a recent government study shows, with women and people with less education more likely to inflate actual crime rates.

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The extensive study was conducted last year in four parts (online survey, in-person focus groups, a secondary online survey and online discussion groups). It was contracted out to EKOS Research for Justice Canada at a cost of $234,000, and the results were just recently made public.

They reveal that around half of respondents to EKOS’ first online survey believed that overall crime rates in Canada are on the rise, when in reality they’ve been dropping for over a decade. Just 30 per cent knew the rates had fallen steadily over the last five years, while another 20 per cent believed they’d been stagnant.

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When it comes to violent crime, the gap between reality and perception widens even further.

“The average percentage of crime that is violent is also believed to be 45 per cent, when in fact it is actually less than half of this percentage (20 per cent), highlighting the same exaggerated sense of crime in Canada,” the final report noted.

“This aligns with previous research that indicates members of the public tend to overestimate the proportion of crimes committed in Canada that are violent.”

The research team found that women and Canadians with lower levels of education were more likely to overestimate the amount of violent crime going on around them. Female respondents, for instance, believed that about 52 per cent of crimes involve the threat or act of violence, while men thought it was around 38 per cent.

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There are a few possible explanations for the ongoing tendency to inflate crime statistics, the research suggests, and one of the strongest is linked to where Canadians get their information.

Most of the focus group participants cited the media as their primary source of information about the criminal justice system, for instance.

They told researchers that “media coverage, the incidence of hearing about many crimes, and, in particular, sensational stories in the criminal justice system,” have helped create a sense of ongoing danger and more prevalent crime in their minds.

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In EKOS’ initial online survey, involving 2,400 people, about half of respondents said that apart from the news media, they got most of their information about the criminal justice system from personal experience or the experience of someone they know.

But more than a quarter cited television and movies as a key source of information, with Quebecers more likely to rely on Hollywood than residents of other provinces.

“Compared to those who get their information from other sources, those who rely on television and movies typically have a lower level of education, and tend to have different views about crime rates and guiding principles about the system, and be more fearful and uninformed,” the report noted.

Overall, it added, the research findings suggest that there is “a strong thirst for reliable information about the criminal justice system in Canada.”

Crime and punishment

In general, the initial online survey found that Canadians are only moderately confident in their criminal justice system. More than half of respondents rated their confidence around the middle point on a 10-point scale, with the rest partitioned out fairly evenly across higher and lower confidence levels.

When it comes to punishing crime, “stronger sentences and punishment were not viewed by most focus group participants as an effective way to dissuade individuals from committing crime. Once a crime has been committed, many felt that rehabilitation helps to reduce the chances of reoffending.”

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The second online survey, conducted by recontacting 1,863 of the original participants, revealed more detail about Canadians’ priorities. Respondents were presented with four “objectives” for the criminal justice system and asked to rank them as being more or less consistent with their values.

Eight in 10 ranked “ensuring safety and lasting protection for the Canadian public” and “accountability” above “providing support to offenders” and “providing opportunities to repair harm.”

Online discussions held after the second survey bore out those results, again indicating that many Canadians place more emphasis on safety and accountability of offenders, and less emphasis on opportunities to repair harm and support offenders through rehabilitation.

The survey also tackled the chronic over-representation of Indigenous Canadians in the criminal justice system. In the second online survey, a majority of respondents supported increasing community-based alternatives to prosecution, and nearly half agreed that governments need to increase the number of Indigenous support workers helping people to navigate the system.

© 2017 Newsler, a division of Newsler.

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